David Bacon, who has done so much great work over the years exposing the plight of Mexican migrants to the U.S., has an excellent piece on how so many of the farmworkers in the U.S.–and more specifically the farmworker activists–are indigenous Mexicans, primarily from poor regions of Oaxaca, the state in southern Mexico where my wife does her academic research.
Agribusiness farming started in San Quintin in the 1970s, as it did in many areas of northern Mexico, to supply the U.S. market with winter tomatoes and strawberries. Baja California had few inhabitants then, so growers brought workers from southern Mexico, especially indigenous Mixtec and Triqui families from Oaxaca. Today an estimated 70,000 indigenous migrant workers live in labor camps notorious for their bad conditions. Many of the conditions are violations of Mexican law.
Once indigenous workers had been brought to the border, they began to cross it to work in fields in the U.S. Today the bulk of the farm labor workforce in California’s strawberry fields comes from the same migrant stream that is on strike in Baja California. So does the migrant labor force picking berries in Washington State, where workers went on strike two years ago.
Two of the 500 strikers at Sakuma Farms were teenagers Marcelina Hilario from San Martin Itunyoso and Teofila Raymundo from Santa Cruz Yucayani. Both started working in the fields with their parents, and today, like many young people in indigenous migrant families, they speak English and Spanish – the languages of school and the culture around them. But Raymundo also speaks her native Triqui and is learning Mixteco, while Hilario speaks Mixteco, is studying French, and thinking about German.
“I’ve been working with my dad since I was 12,” Raymundo remembers. “I’ve seen them treat him bad, but he comes back because he needs this job. Once after a strike here, we came up all the way from California the next season, and they wouldn’t hire us. We had to go looking for another place to live and work that year. That’s how I met Marcelina.” They both accused the company of refusing to give them better jobs keeping track of the berries picked by workers – positions that only went to young white workers. “When I see people treat us badly, I don’t agree with that,” Hilario added. “I think you have to say something.”
For these workers, Spanish is not their first language. They are discriminated against in Mexico–perhaps not to the same degree as Native Americans in the United States, but this is mostly because of the reservation system in the US and the sheer number of indigenous people in Mexico–and are taking the hardest jobs in the United States when they migrate. Many of these indigenous villages are almost completely devoid of people between the ages of 15 and 50 except during Fiesta when people come back if they can. This discrimination is trans-national, as they are likely to be undocumented, may lack Spanish language skills not to mention English (although this is increasingly less common among younger people), and have little capital–financial or cultural–to be upwardly mobile in either country. But they are willing to fight for better lives. Progressives do a terrible job of recognizing indigenous issues in the U.S., not to mention Mexico, but we also have to recognize when we think about immigration that indigenous status is a really important part of that.